“Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark” by Cecelia Watson— A Book About a Semicolon

Watson, Cecelia. “Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark”, Ecco, 2019.

A Book About a Semicolon

Amos Lassen

I know I have often wondered why we need the semicolon and therefore I have hesitated to use it much. Likewise I found it hard to imagine why anyone would write an entire book on the semicolon. Stephen King, Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Orwell detest it. Herman Melville, Henry James, and Rebecca Solnit love it. But why? When is it effective? Have we been misusing it? Should we even care?

Cecelia Watson gives us the rise and fall of this infamous punctuation mark, which for years was the trendiest one in the world of letters. However,  in the nineteenth century, when grammar books became all the rage, the rules of how we use language became both stricter and more confusing and a prime victim was the semicolon. Watson takes us on a journey through a range of examples (from Milton’s manuscripts to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from Birmingham Jail” to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep) and reveals how traditional grammar rules make us less successful at communicating with each other than we’d think. Even the most die-hard grammar fanatics would be better served by tossing the rule books and learning a better way to engage with language. Watson has written a guide to grammar that explains why we don’t need guides at all, and refocuses our attention on the deepest, most primary value of language: true communication.

Watson’s stress is on compassionate punctuation making this “ a volume worth serious consideration.”

What begins as “an exploration of the obscure origins of a modest punctuation mark becomes a slyly profound proof of the value of creative freedom itself. Grammar fiends and poetic anarchists alike will find “Semicolon” inspiring, challenging, and delightful.”


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